The True Memoirs of an International Assassin


Kevin James, badass!

Kevin James, badass!

(2016) Action Comedy (Netflix) Kevin James, Andy Garcia, Zulay Henao, Kim Coates, Ron Rifkin, Maurice Compte, Rob Riggle, Leonard Earl Howze, Yul Vazquez, Andrew Howard, P.J. Byrne, Kelen Coleman, Jeff Chase, Katie Couric, G-Rod, Daniel Zacapa, Al Hamacher, Jordi Caballero, Lauren Shaw, Emilie Ullerup. Directed by Jeff Wadlow

 

Some things in life are less likely than others; Donald Trump having an extramarital affair, for example – with Rosie O’Donnell. Or PETA opening up a barbecue restaurant.

Right up there with those is Kevin James morphing into an action hero, although he has done a few action films in his time. The portly sitcom star is actually fairly fit for a man his size, but he certainly doesn’t fit the mold of a classic action hero.

Still, he has a very likable screen persona and plenty of charisma on both the big screen and small. He hasn’t always gotten great movies and good roles but he has always been a trooper and does his best even when the material is less than scintillating. Here he plays Sam Larson, a cubicle cowboy who dreams of being a bestselling author, but unlike most of us with such ambitions he’s actually doing something about it. He’s writing a James Bond-meets-Die Hard spy story in which the hero, Mason Carver a.k.a. The Ghost is his own alter ego. Sometimes when Sam gets stuck for inspiration, Mason Carver and the other characters in the scene stand around, twiddling their thumbs and waiting expectantly for direction – which may be a metaphor for what the actors in this film were doing.

His energetic and somewhat conniving E-Publisher (Coleman) thinks she’s got a winner on her hands when he submits the manuscript and promises not to change a word. In fact, she doesn’t – she adds one to the title though, changing The Memoirs of an International Assassin to The True Memoirs of an International Assassin and marketing it as biographical.

This infuriates not only Sam but his buddy Amos (Rifkin) who has been advising him on some of the finer points of international espionage and had urged him not to print certain aspects of Mason Carver’s exploits. During an interview with Katie Couric (herself) on Yahoo, Sam gets cold feet and runs out of the studio – and straight into the arms of kidnappers who turn out to be agents of El Toro (Garcia), a Venezuelan revolutionary. He wants the Venezuelan president (Coates) dead, and essentially tells Sam – who he believes is really The Ghost – that if the president isn’t murdered, Sam will be.

Of course, Sam gets arrested and brought before the President who also believes Sam is The Ghost – and urges him to kill drug kingpin Anton Masovich (Howard) who then kidnaps Sam and suggests he murders El Toro. Maybe Sam should just nuke Venezuela and be done with it, no? Well, that wouldn’t make for a very long movie so Sam, with the help of comely DEA agent Rosa Bolivar (Henao) he figures out a way to get out of this with his skin more or less intact but not everything here is on the up and up.

Incomprehensibly, this script ended up on the Black List of unproduced screenplays a couple of years ago, which leads me to believe that either this was extensively rewritten or the standards for quality of Black List screenplays has taken a serious hit. The plot is pretty pedestrian and has been done before and better in other films; in fact, this feels throughout like you’re watching a sitcom in which the Fonz plays an international spy. Or Ray Romano. Or Doug Heffernan (James’ character in King of Queens) for that matter.

The movie also suffers from really poor CGI throughout, from the explosion to the blood splatters. It all looks fake. To make matters worse, there are several running jokes – like various characters musing “Maybe he really is The Ghost” about Sam, or in the third act for some incomprehensible reason the filmmakers chose to pepper the soundtrack with Spanish language version of pop hits from the 70s, 80s and 90s. Once or twice is okay but it was a good five or six occasions. Brevity is the soul of wit; repetition doesn’t make a joke any funnier in general. Just sayin’.

Don’t get me wrong – there is some entertainment value here but it’s mainly due to James’ work. And let’s face it; compared to the Adam Sandler comedies that Netflix has released thus far, this is Mel Brooks-level work (and believe it or not, Sandler’s production company Happy Madison had nothing to do with this which was surprising to me considering how close Sandler and James are). Still, this is little more than a 90 minute time-killer that will have little more value than that to you. Me, I’d recommend that you wait for a movie that is more worthy of Mr. James’ talents.

REASONS TO GO: Kevin James is always engaging and likable.
REASONS TO STAY: There is a sitcom-like feel to this and some of the running jokes are pretty damn annoying.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of violence and some rude humor.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film is a remake of the 1973 French action film Le Magnifique.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/8/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 0% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Passengers

The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Certified Copy (Copie conforme)


Happiness is a good public cuddle.

Happiness is a good public cuddle.

(2010) Drama (IFC) Juliette Binoche, William Shimell, Jean-Claude Carriere, Agathe Nathanson, Gianna Giachetti, Adrian Moore, Angelo Barbagallo, Andrea Laurenzi, Filippo Trojano, Manuela Balsinelli. Directed by Abbas Kiarostami

Some movies defy easy categorization, let alone summation. They require careful viewing in a distraction-free environment, and time enough afterwards to ponder what the viewer has seen, preferably with a nice glass of wine or a good cup of coffee.

Certified Copy is one of those films. British author James Miller (Shimell) is in Italy to discuss the Italian translation of his book which opines that while originality is preferably, there is nothing wrong with a good copy if the original is exceptional. He is talking about art of course, although his opinions also run into other aspects of life.

French ex-pat antique store owner Elle (Binoche) – whose name is never given and is referred to in the credits by the French word for “she” – is intrigued by the lecture and offers to show James around Tuscany while he waits for a 9pm train. He agrees, but first she must take her 11-year-old son (Moore) home as he is hungry and has become a distraction. She drops off her son and drives aimlessly, waiting for MIller to finish autographing copies of his book. Then they drive to the small village of Arezzo. They discuss the book in detail along the drive, then go into a museum to see a famous “copy.”

At a nearby cafe as they are having lunch the proprietress (Giachetti) mistakes them for husband and wife. While MIller is taking a cell phone call outside, she and the antique store owner talk about marriage and the antique store owner doesn’t correct the cafe owner as to the relationship with James, whom she just met. Then, things take an odd turn.

As they leave the cafe, James – who plays along with the perception that he and she are husband and wife – begins to speak to her as if they have been married for 15 years and her son is theirs. The conversation between the two becomes increasingly familiar, and the state of their relationship becomes murky. Are they truly strangers who are playing a role, or are they actually husband and wife who were pretending to be strangers? Which is real?

The truth is never clarified by Kiarostami who in the tradition of good writers allows the viewer to make up their own mind. Kiarostami, an Iranian director making his first feature film fully outside of Iran (he had shot parts of previous films outside of that country and had directed a documentary outside of Iran) is noted for his conversational pictures, with long dialogue taking place in moving cars. I’ve found his work to be an acquired taste, but when I’m in the right frame of mind the rewards are exceptional.

Shimell is a find. An opera singer (a baritone) making his first cinematic non-operatic performance, he projects a good amount of warmth. His British author is a bit prickly particularly about his scholarly work but he gives the aura of a warm giving man. Binoche is one of my favorite French actresses who displays all of the virtues that make French women irresistible; passion, opinionated and independent, which makes her unnamed character absolutely mesmerizing. The two make a splendid couple.

This is definitely not for all audiences. There is a good deal of subtlety going on and some may be confused at the change to amenable strangers to intimate lovers. Let’s just say that the subject of James’ book is a clue to what’s going on and leave it at that.

The pacing is European-slow, which also some American viewers may find frustrating. However, if you let the emotional realism wash over you and just go with the story, you will find this as rewarding as I did. Because I know not all my readers will appreciate the movie, I’m giving it a slightly lower rating than I feel it deserves – certainly this is a movie that inspires thought and debate, and not everyone is into that. However those of us that are will appreciate a movie that makes us look at a relationship from different angles – and takes for granted that the relationship isn’t what it appears to be at all.

WHY RENT THIS: Extraordinarily realistic, particularly from an emotional setting. Binoche and Shimell make a believable couple.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Lots of awkward pauses. Slow-moving.
FAMILY VALUES: Adult themes and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Binoche won the Best Actress award at the Cannes film festival for her performance here.
NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The Criterion edition includes Kiarostami’s cinematic debut, the negative to which was destroyed during the Iranian revolution and the transfer of which came from the one battered print known in existence, as well as a detailed making-of feature that includes discussion of the real incident that inspired the film.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $5.5M on a $4.1M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental only). Amazon, iTunes
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Before Sunrise
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Infamous

Maps to the Stars


Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

Mia Wasikowska communes with the grime.

(2015) Thriller (Focus) Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson, Evan Bird, Olivia Williams, Sarah Gadon, Klara Glasco, Dawn Greenhaigh, Jonathan Watton, Jennifer Gibson, Gord Rand, Justin Kelly, Niamh Wilson, Clara Pasieka, Emilia McCarthy, Allegra Fulton, Dominic Ricci, Jayne Heitmeier, Carrie Fisher, Amanda Brugel. Directed by David Cronenberg

Hollywood is a seductive cocktail. You can hear it whispering “Drink me” in a throaty voice, promising fame, wealth, glamour and the opportunity to be beloved by minions. What you don’t hear it whisper is that it rarely bestows those things on anyone and when it does, the cost is unbearably high.

On a bus to Hollywood there is a young woman named Agatha (Wasikowska). She is, we find out later, hideously burned, wearing gloves and a body stocking to hide them, as well as long bangs to hide those on her face. She is coming at the behest of Carrie Fisher (whom she met on Twitter), she says (and it turns out to be true) to help her co-author a novel or maybe a project for HBO. She also has a bit of an obsession for the actress Clarice Taggart (Gadon), a beautiful and troubled soul who died tragically young in a house fire.

As it turns out, Clarice was the mother of Havana Segrand (Moore) who has had a lengthy career as an actress. Unfortunately, she didn’t have the good fortune to die young and beautiful in a fire and as she is getting older she is getting more and more invisible to casting agents. She is desperate to get a role in the remake of her mother’s most famous movie, Strange Waters  – and not just any role but the role her mother played. Alas, it seems destined for a younger actress named Azita Wachtel (Heitmeier). Nevertheless, Havana needs a new assistant and her close friend Carrie Fisher is happy to recommend the newcomer Agatha for the job.

Havana sees pop culture psychotherapist and self-help guru Dr. Stanford Weiss (Cusack) to help her deal with her mommy issues, which are severe. Havana has claimed to have been abused physically and sexually by her mom, a charge her mom vehemently denies – or rather the ghost of her mom who haunts Havana.

Dr. Weiss has issues of his own. His young son Benjie (Bird) is a child star whose career took a tumble when he went to rehab. Now clean and sober, he’s making a sequel to his best-known role, Bad News Babysitter with another young actor who seems to be stealing all the scenes, which irritates Benjie no end. Of course, everything irritates Benjie no end and he is bringing cruelty and all-around dickishness to a new art form. His mother Christina (Williams) is wrapped around his little finger but she’s been through a lot; a fire caused by Benjie’s sister took the life of a younger brother and caused the sister to be locked away in a mental institution.

As events begin to shift and roil, with Agatha striking up a relationship with a limo driver (Pattinson) who yearns to be an actor/writer and tragic circumstances awarding the coveted role to Havana, the tenuous connections between all these characters become much clearer and darker as things begin to move towards a horrifying conclusion. But then again, this is Hollywood, baby.

Cronenberg has had a career that is iconoclastic. While his output has been uneven, his films are generally interesting even if they haven’t always succeeded in resonating with audiences. This particular movie is as dark as they come with a cast of characters that is unlikable from top to bottom; from the self-centered therapist to the narcissistic child actor to the troubled assistant to the egotistic actress, this is the nightmare Hollywood in which self-serving lies are a kind of currency and kindness a mark of weakness – unless done very visibly in order to garner favorable publicity.

Moore, who recently was awarded the Oscar for her work in Still Alice is definitely on a role; she could easily have been nominated for this performance as well and may well have had the studio elected to release this last year. It may well be too early in the year for Academy voters to remember her work come the fall when ballots are mailed out but she deserves to have her name written down on at least a few of them.

Most of the rest of the cast does solid work as well, although special note should be made of Bird who is not well-known yet but may well be after his performance here. He makes Draco Malfoy look like a sweetheart, and made the character’s nastiness so palpable that Da Queen wanted to kick him in the genitals several times. My lovely wife doesn’t like spoiled brats overly much, particularly of the Hollywood sort.

There are a good number of insider references and those who are fascinated by that kind of thing will be in hog heaven here. However, this isn’t a movie that is going to have mass appeal; things get more and more twisted and perverse as the movie goes on with a dog getting shot (usually a deal killer for me) and even worse as things spiral towards their conclusion.

Cronenberg has always worked outside the Hollywood system which is a little bit easier when you’re Canadian (this movie marks the first time he’s even shot in the United States in a career approaching 50 years and that only for essentially a week) and this isn’t likely to get him any new invitations to parties, not that he would accept any. I will say that as bleak a characterization of Hollywood life as this is (and there is some truth to it), the reality is not quite so extreme as reality often is. There are plenty of people in Hollywood who are genuine and kind but that kind of thing is less interesting; we’d rather see the rich and famous be absolute bastards because it makes us feel better about ourselves, as in “they got rich and famous but they had to sell their souls to get it which I’m not willing to do, hence the reason I’m not rich and famous.”

This isn’t for everyone, nor should it be. There are plenty who will be put off by the pervasive self-worship and the skewed outlook on life by those who live the Hollywood dream. There’s nothing wholesome about it. However, I will point out that the trailers imply that this is something of a horror movie; yes there are apparitions and horrible things happen but this isn’t a horror movie per se, so be aware of that going in.

This isn’t Cronenberg’s best film, nor is it his most typical but this is a very good piece of filmmaking indeed. I was really drawn in, wondering what was going to happen next and that’s all you can ask of any movie. It may not have been a pleasant experience (and those looking for one can always go see McFarland) but it was an edifying one and that gets points in my book.

REASONS TO GO: Searing performances by Moore and Bird. Lots of Hollywood insider goodness. Some moments of genuine pathos and genuine hilarity.
REASONS TO STAY: Dark, dark, dark. Intrinsically shallow with characters you’re not going to like very much.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some unsettling violence and bloody images, graphic nudity, sexuality, foul language and some drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Moore and Wasikowska previously appeared together in The Kids Are All Right in which they played mother-daughter.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/5/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 67/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Day of the Locust
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: Leviathan

Scream 4


Scream 4

Sometimes, a rave in a barn can be a Scream.

(2011) Horror Comedy (Dimension) Neve Campbell, David Arquette, Courtney Cox, Emma Roberts, Hayden Panettiere, Marielle Jaffe, Rory Culkin, Nico Tortorella, Eric Knudson, Marley Shelton, Anthony Anderson, Adam Brody, Alison Brie, Mary McConnell, Anna Paquin, Kristen Bell. Directed by Wes Craven

 

New generation, new rules. The Scream franchise made its reputation for slyly skewering the conventions of horror movies (as well as any number of good-looking 20-somethings playing teens) while retaining a certain amount of hip cachet.

But that was back in the ’90s. Depending on who you talk to, Scream set off a whole new generation of innovative new horror films or were the final hurrah of a golden age of horror films (the 70s and 80s). Since then, horror films particularly in Hollywood have degenerated into mostly remakes of standards or soap operas about vampires (although there is a very strong underground horror movement in which exciting and innovative films continue to be made, some here in the United States but also in Europe and Asia). So, is it a ripe time for writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven to bring the Ghostface out of mothballs and turn their poisoned pens on a moribund industry again?

Woodsboro, the bucolic small town of the first Scream trilogy, has been immortalized and yet traumatized by the murders there 15 years earlier. The survivor of the murders, Sidney Franklin (Campbell) is returning after a ten year absence to promote her book. Gale Weathers-Riley (Cox) has settled down and married Dewey Riley (Arquette) who is now the sheriff. Gale, whose books became the lucrative basis of the Stab motion picture series, is suffering from writers block and might be just a hair jealous of Sidney’s success.

A pair of comely high school girls are murdered by Ghostface and evidence planted in Sidney’s car, leading her to be forced to stay in Woodsboro much to the chagrin of her agent Rebecca Walters (Brie). Sidney is staying with her aunt Kate Roberts (McDonnell) and her cousin Jill (Roberts) who is dealing with break-up issues with her boyfriend Trevor Sheldon (Tortorella). Jill and her friends Kirby (Panettiere) and Olivia (Jaffe) have received threatening Ghostface phone calls. They enlist the local movie club president Charlie Walker (Culkin) and Dewey’s Keystone Kops (or in this case, Demented Deputies) Hicks (Shelton), Hoss (Brody) and Perkins (Anderson) to keep Sidney alive and catch the killer. However, this is a reboot and the rules, if any, are far more different.

There are those who complained that the originally trilogy of Scream films overstayed their welcome and I have to admit that there’s a point there. The first movie was massive fun, marvelously self-aware and yet managed to have its cake and eat it too in that it made fun of all of the clichés of horror and yet it used them too when it suited the movie.

There is an attractive cast here but the movie is dually focused on Sidney’s gang (Campbell, Cox and Arquette) as well as Jill’s group (Roberts, Panettiere and Culkin). That might sound like Craven’s trying to pass the torch to a new generation but that really isn’t the case. At the end of the day, this is Sidney’s story to tell and Neve Campbell for better or for worse is Sidney. I’ve never found the character of Sidney to be anything more than the generic plucky horror heroine and to be honest I’ve never really thought Campbell has imbued the character with much of a personality, which to be fair has always kind of been the point – most of the quips and snappy dialogue have really gone to other characters in the series.

Arquette, always the comic foil of the series, still plays Dewey like a kind of stoned Barney Fife. It can be endearing in places, and annoying in others. Still, I think Dewey has kind of matured in a way the other characters here haven’t which is a bit of a plus.

The main question is whether the traditional teen audience for horror films will get behind a movie that features lead characters that are essentially in their 30s and even (gasp) 40s and I don’t think they really embraced the franchise the way the previous generation did. The reveal of the true identity of Ghostface, supposed to be a shocker, didn’t really deliver the punch the first movie’s reveal did and by the time the movie ended I was actually kind of bored.

The movie captures enough of the essence of the first film that I can give it a recommendation with some caveats in that the original still delivers the goods, even if the audience for it has moved on. Revisiting Woodsboro isn’t a bad thing in and of itself however, and if a Scream 5 is ever made I’ll probably see it (although Da Queen won’t). Not a glowing testimonial I know, but it’s all that I got.

WHY RENT THIS: Actors settle into their roles nicely. Great seeing Campbell-Arquette-Cox combo again.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Didn’t really capture my imagination. Seems a bit “more of the same.”

FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of blood, gore and violence (as you would predict from a Wes Craven horror film), a bit of bad language and some teen drinking.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The third consecutive movie in which Rory Culkin has been in a movie that Emma Roberts was in (the others being Lymelife and Twelve

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a gag reel and a promo for the Scream 4 video game.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $97.1M on a $40M production budget; the movie made a bit of a profit at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Scary Movie

FINAL RATING: 5/10

NEXT: The Tillman Story

Halloween II (2009)


Halloween II
You can’t keep a good supernatural serial killer down.

 

 

(Dimension) Scout Taylor-Compton, Tyler Mane, Malcolm McDowell, Danielle Harris, Brad Dourif, Howard Hesseman, Sheri Moon Zombie, Chase Vanek, Margot Kidder. Directed by Rob Zombie

 

Sequels can be very problematic. They’re almost never as good as the original, and when you throw in that it’s the sequel to the reboot of one of the classic horror series of all time, things get even more dicey.

 

Halloween II picks up where Zombie’s reboot left off, with Laurie Strode (Taylor-Compton) being pulled out of the house in an ambulance, while serial killer Michael Myers (Mane) is being carted off to the morgue, courtesy of a gunshot to the face by Miss Strode. However, you can’t keep a good serial killer horror film franchise down and Myers turns out to be not quite dead yet, escaping the ambulance that is transporting him to the county morgue when the unlucky ambulance hits a cow. Hey, Haddonfield is farm country don’tcha know.

 

He shows up back at the hospital where Laurie is being treated – a hospital that seems unrealistically understaffed – and hacks a few people to death, particularly a nurse whom he seems intent on pounding into hamburger. He corners her in a guard shack and – voila! – She wakes up from a dream. Actually, the sequence was an homage to the original Halloween II which took place entirely in a hospital. Zombie serves notice that this isn’t gonna be your pappy’s Michael Myers.

 

It’s two years after the events of the first film (although, strangely, the theatrical release portrayed it as being one year, but what’s a year between fiends) and Laurie is now living with Sheriff Brackett (Dourif) and his daughter Annie (Harris) who was the only other survivor of the Michael Myer’s previous Halloween rampage.

 

Halloween is approaching once again and Laurie has been beset by strange dreams. She confesses to her therapist (Kidder) that she’s concerned for her sanity, but she has no idea what kind of shellacking her sanity’s in for. That’s because Dr. Loomis (McDowell), Michael’s therapist from the first film, is on yet another book tour and in his new book he reveals that Laurie is actually Michael Myers’ sister (and Darth Vader is their father…but that didn’t make it into the movie). Since Laurie wasn’t aware of it, she goes bonkers and storms out of the Brackett’s happy home which is bad news for Laurie but good news for Michael, who is coming out for a family reunion, egged on by the Gothic ghost of his mom (Zombie) and the specter of his younger self (Vanek, taking over from Doug Faerch who had a growth spurt and became literally too big for the role).

 

All of this means there’s going to be mayhem in Haddonfield on Halloween, complete with strippers getting their face jammed into a mirror numerous times, a bouncer getting his head squashed in by Michael’s brogans, a couple of rednecks finding out the hard way why it is a very bad idea to mount antlers on the front of their pickup and a whole mess o’ carnage too disturbing to get into here.

 

There’s no doubt that Zombie is a visionary director – The Devil’s Rejects proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt as one of the best horror movies of the last decade. However, he seems oddly hamstrung here, which might have been due to the incredibly tight filming schedule (something which he mentions in the commentary track) or perhaps due to his own reluctance to do a sequel which he changed his mind about at the last moment, leading to said tight schedule. Either way, the movie doesn’t live up to most of his other work and has to rank as a disappointment.

 

That’s not to say it’s totally without redeeming qualities. For example, the violence here is excessive and realistic. When Michael Myers plunges the blade into a body, it is with full force, punctuated with an animal grunt. While that might make some queasy, it truly does work within the context of the movie and brings a new dimension of realism to the proceedings.

 

Where the movie doesn’t work is in the endless psychobabble that Zombie sees fit to insert, trying to get at the core of what drives Michael Myers. Now while I’m all for attempting to get inside the head of a serial killer, it gets a little too artsy fartsy for my way of thinking, with his mom showing up as a kind of Goth chick ghost in flowing white robes, accompanied by a white horse. It derails the oeuvre of the movie and takes audience right out of the mood.

 

He goes out of his way to make Laurie Strode shrill and unlikable. While this may be a realistic way of depicting someone who’s been through the kind of ordeal she has, what it also serves to do is alienate the audience from identifying with the heroine and that’s just bad juju. If the audience thinks the heroine is a whiny bitch, they’re not going to care what happens to her and if they don’t care what happens to her, there’s no reason to see the movie other than to watch Michael Myers carve up the citizens of Haddonfield and environs.

 

I also have to comment on the set design which is often incomprehensibly busy. Laurie’s room looks like the inside of a mental hospital cell, with a huge poster of Charlie Manson and spray painted graffiti reading “In Charlie We Trust.” This in the home of a town sheriff  mind you. Apparently Rob’s sense of realism and mine differ by quite a bit, so we’ll just leave it at that. In any case, you wind up with sensory overload in quite a few of the scenes, focusing in on the minutiae of the set design that you almost lose track of what the filmmaker’s trying to get you to notice. It kind of works at odds with Zombie’s vision.

 

I’m a big fan of Rob Zombie and the Halloween franchise both, so it is with a great deal of regret that I have to give this a poor review. I really, really wanted to like this movie and I just flat-out didn’t. While there is a third movie in the rebooted franchise slated for release next year, Zombie won’t be a part of it which may well turn out to be a good thing for both Zombie and the producers of Halloween – Zombie took an enormous amount of crap from the horror film fandom for this movie, much of it undeserved (for example, Michael is unmasked for much of the movie which many fanboys found to be sacrilegious) but some of it justified. I’m hoping his next project blows me away. This one didn’t do the job.

 

WHY RENT THIS: Some very effective scares, and a lot of insight into the background of Michael Myers. The violence is brutal and realistic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: The set design is a bit of a mess, often so busy that it distracts from what’s going on onscreen. The plot meanders and gets a little too murky with the symbology.

FAMILY VALUES: The violence here is particularly brutal which works for the movie but may be difficult viewing for sensitive souls. There is also a good deal of crude language, female nudity and much sex. For teens there are scenes of teen drinking and implied drug use. All in all this is not for kids or for most teens.  

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tyler Mane becomes only the second actor to play Michael Myers in more than one film (George Wilbur is the other one). 

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There are six music videos from the fictitious band Captain Clegg and the Night Creatures. There are also some standup comedy performances from Jeff Daniel Phillips, a blooper reel and audition tapes.

 BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $39.3M on a $15M production budget; the movie made money.

FINAL RATING: 4/10

TOMORROW: Day Four of the Six Days of Darkness